What are motivation theories?

7 min read  |   27 November, 2023   By Laura Sands

Wooden cubes are shown, with white upward-pointing arrows painted on them. Someone is stacking the cubes on top of each other, placing the 4th cube on the top.

Do you know what makes your staff tick? This is the fundamental question behind motivation theories.

Figuring out who is motivated by what can be a challenge for HR managers and employers. But with only about a third of employees saying they feel engaged, motivation theory has never been more important.

In this blog, we look at different theories of motivation & how they can boost engagement in your SME. 


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What is motivation theory?

Using motivation theories to increase productivity

The pros and cons of motivation theories


What is motivation theory?

Motivation theory is the study of understanding what drives a person to work towards a particular goal or outcome. It’s relevant to all of society but is especially important to business and management.

That’s because a motivated employee is more productive, and a more productive employee is more profitable. Indeed, research has shown that happy, motivated employees can increase productivity by around 12%.

So how do you motivate your employees and make them happier in the workplace?


Motivation theories: the basics

There are numerous branches of motivation theory but at its simplest, it boils down to two factors:

  • Extrinsic factors. Here people are motivated by external factors such as a bonus for hard work or a sanction if targets are not met.
  • Intrinsic factors. Here people are motivated by a desire to satisfy human needs. These might include a desire to please their boss or to achieve certain professional or personal goals.

Most people are motivated by a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation factors. As a manager, you must understand what that combination is.


Examples of motivation theories to increase productivity

Because we’re all different, there’s no single way to motivate individual workers.

There are assessment tools which help you understand what makes a particular employee tick. But better still is a manager who invests time in getting to know their team. This means they understand the different personalities and can figure out their behaviours.


What tools do employers have to improve motivation?



A thoughtfully-created employee rewards scheme can go a long way to motivating your team and increasing productivity. While there are number of common ways companies reward employees (Friday beers, staff lunch etc.) a rewards scheme is not a one-size fits all policy. Instead, think about what works best for your team specifically, make them inclusive and appropriately sized.

Whether they are geared towards personal goals or embodying company values, chances are you’ll see your team reinforcing your company values and better teamwork. Don’t sleep on small rewards either; a hand-written note, or a shout-out at a team meeting can ensure your team stays motivated.


Employees want to know you have their best interests at heart while employers want to know they can trust employees to do a job well. Building a culture around trust creates a positive atmosphere which motivates your staff and benefits productivity.


It’s simple but recognising an employee’s hard work can have a tremendous impact. It can also spur them on to achieve more. Recognition can take many forms from an informal “thank you” or Kudos to a glitzier employee of the month or year award.

Career advancement

One study found that the number one reason for employees leaving their jobs was career development. It makes sense - employees want to use their skills. They also want to learn new skills. If your company doesn’t offer a clear career development path, they may leave. And if they don’t leave, they’ll be far from productive. Combat this by talking to your employees about their career expectations and by building career development into your business.


Increasing numbers of employees want more from their jobs than a paycheque. Organisational purpose is a strong motivator for many workers – especially younger employees. Engaging your staff with your business’s purpose can help increase commitment to your business and improve motivation.

Office environment

The likelihood that someone is going to love their job 100% of the time is slim. There will always be the occasional down day where people simply won’t feel as capable to perform in their role. It’s just as important to motivate your team on a bad day as it is a good one. Thankfully, one way you can tackle this is by creating an office environment that is pleasant to be in. Studies have shown that plants are a cost-effective way to improve office life and increase positivity and motivation.



Everyone likes to hear that they’ve done a good job, but unfortunately not everyone is given the opportunity. The benefits of giving feedback to your team and employees are numerous, and improved motivation is one of them.

Employees want to develop and improve and giving regular feedback enables them to see what they’re doing and how well they’re doing it.

The same works for the inverse too, if someone is not performing optimally in their position, feedback enables them to address their issues and perform better. It also makes them feel valued, and when employees feel valued they’re more likely to take ownership and responsibility on projects.


Talk - and listen

Whether it’s at a performance management meeting, formalised in a company survey or in the kitchen making a drink, talking with your team is the best way to understand what motivates them. Good communication is an effective tool that can be used to boost morale and employee value.

Take the time to listen to what your team has to say and come up with ways to address their concerns. Ask what they want, but be prepared that different generations may want different things from their job and the workplace.


The pros & cons of motivation theories 

The biggest difficulty of using motivation theories to get the most out of your staff is that there’s no single approach that works for everyone.

Financial reward may be important for some employees but for others it’s a small part of the puzzle - they may be more motivated by the job itself.

Ultimately, it’s part of a manager’s job to understand what motivates each employee. It’s not a quick and easy task, but the long-term gains of happy employees and increased productivity outweigh the time and effort.

Let Breathe reduce admin & free up time to spend with your team - Breathe easy with simple HR software. 


Author: Laura Sands

Laura is a writer who enjoys getting into the detail of subjects and sharing that knowledge with snappy, interesting content. When not typing away, she enjoys walks in the woods and curling up with a good book and mug of something hot.

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